Reviews | Short Takes
Every Sound Below, CD by Tim Eriksen '88
Every Sound Below. By Tim Eriksen ’88. West Chester, Pa.: Appleseed Recordings, 2004. Music CD $17.98.
Here are some things you need to know about Tim Eriksen: He has shared a stage with both Kurt Cobain and Doc Watson, he’s an accomplished veena player and a member of the Balkan band Zabe I Babe and the western Massachusetts band Cordelia’s Dad, and his music has taken him to CBGBs and the Academy Awards.
All too often these days, such a broad list of styles is the hallmark of New Age multicultural elevator music. But 30 seconds into Every Sound Below’s first cut, “The Stars Their Match,” will lay to rest any such fears. Eriksen’s unaccompanied voice—naked, nasal and droning— carries enough genuine conviction and feeling to send chills up the listener’s spine. Throughout the course of the CD there are, indeed, reflections of Eriksen’s broad experience and interests, but for the most part this recording hovers around the 18th century: modal mountain music with an implied pedal tone that echoes Swedish fiddling and Highland pipes. Even to the extent that Eriksen’s other interests come into play, they blend seamlessly with the overall feeling of the record. At two points, he drifts into Tuvan throat singing, and although it is a radically different vocal technique that comes from the other side of the world (and exactly the kind of trendy insertion that lesser musicians use gratuitously), in Eriksen’s hands it somehow seems perfectly natural in the middle of an 18th-century tune.
This is undoubtedly because Eriksen is no dilettante dabbling in diversity. There are years of scholarship and practice behind his music, including 10 years of veena study (four years with Professor of Music and Asian Languages and Civilizations David Reck) and graduate study in ethnomusicology. He learned throat singing through his friendship with musicologist Ted Levin ’73, who brought the Tuvan group Huun Huur Tu to the West (and who, coincidentally, once occupied the same dorm room as Eriksen). For several decades he has combed through basements, attics and antique shops tracing the lineage of folk songs. And then there’s shape-note singing—an old style where singers sit in a square, performing four-part rustic hymns and using a graphic form of notation devised for unlettered singers. Eriksen is sufficiently expert in this all-but-forgotten form that he was drafted to work on the soundtrack for the Academy Award-nominated film Cold Mountain. As if that weren’t enough, he has also played in punk bands and studied the music of George Crumb and Harry Partch.
The Crumb and Partch influences surface in the decidedly nontraditional harmonic structure of “A Tiny Crown,” which, despite its unexpected melodic turns, again sits comfortably with the other material. Eriksen says the lyrics of this song reflect his own early childhood, “which was shaped equally by sea monkeys and ‘gorilla’ warfare, both of which worried me.”
The CD’s production is austere: just Eriksen singing and accompanying himself on guitar, fiddle and banjo, recorded live with a single microphone and without any kind of processing. No drum machines or Pro Tools here. This is plain music, in the Amish sense of “plain,” and with the same virtues: honesty, humility, directness. It’s easy to see why a former punk rocker would like this style, punk music aiming for its own version of immediacy and authenticity.
Eriksen’s voice here is nasal, in the style of British singers like The Watersons and Martin Carthy, who is an Eriksen fan. One of the curious aspects of this vocal style is that it is dynamically flat—every word in a phrase is at essentially the same volume—and yet it feels anything but two-dimensional. It may be that this British-derived style is the musical equivalent of a stiff upper lip, highlighting strength of character by underplaying the expected reaction to emotional situations—like the battles, heartbreak and religious lament that are the subjects of these songs. Not that there is anything understated in Eriksen’s performance: it is strong-willed and sturdy—not necessarily loud, just unequivocal.
Despite the limited instrumental and vocal palette, there is a great sense of variety on the CD, with a cappella renditions, solo banjo, gentler guitar-and-voice numbers, and rustic fiddle tunes. Lyrically, too, there is a wide range, from the Civil War tale of “The Cumberland and the Merrimac” to the more personal theme of “Careless Love” to the gospel sentiments of “John Colby’s Hymn.” Eriksen’s own lyrics are vivid, abstract and poetic. Consider these lines from the title track:
One old new moon, as sister cast a beam.
This newest moon, as rock, casts only shadow.
What speed westward, could stop her being swallowed by the hills?
Which of all the fairest sounds, between this rock and ours,
Casts anything but memory?
Haunted is an easy word for all these moons
And every sound below.
As Eriksen says of the song, “Imagery is the means, not the end. I think that animism has more relevance to childhood than ‘magic.’”
That explains well what makes listening to this recording such an affecting experience: Eriksen rises above style, above mere lyric and melody, to find the soul of the song, the singer and the listener.
— Mark Cherrington
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CD cover: Jeff Korte